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Mandating Flexibility Instead of Office Returns: A Better Path Forward for Organizational Leadership



The COVID-19 pandemic brought about massive changes in how and where work gets done. As vaccines became widely available and case counts declined in many parts of the world, many organizations began implementing return-to-office mandates in hopes of restoring a sense of normalcy and collaboration. However, research suggests such mandates are unlikely to have their intended effects and may even undermine long-term organizational success and employee well-being. Instead of strictly mandating in-person work, progressive leaders are centering flexibility and trust as they guide their organizations into a post-pandemic future.


Today we will examine why return-to-office mandates often don't work as intended and propose what leaders should mandate instead to foster high performance, engagement, and adaptability in a hybrid work era.


Return-to-Office Mandates Risk Disengagement and Attrition


A wealth of research data suggests return-to-office mandates are misaligned with both employee preferences and productivity realities uncovered during widespread remote work. According to a global study by PwC, only 39% of employees desired a full return to the office post-pandemic while another 39% preferred a hybrid model and 22% wanted fully remote work (PwC, 2021). Similarly, Gallup found only about 5% of employees wanted to be back in the office full-time once the pandemic ended (Gallup, 2021).


Going against these clear employee preferences has real costs for organizations. Mandating full-time office returns has been linked to greater attrition risk as employees seek jobs with more flexibility (Gallup, 2021). For example, high-profile companies like Twitter and Coinbase lost many talented employees after implementing strict return-to-office policies (Conger & Scheiber, 2022). Disengaged and dissatisfied employees are also less innovative, less likely to go the extra mile, and drag down overall performance and productivity (Gallup, 2017).


Meanwhile, research suggests remote and hybrid work arrangements may not undermine collaboration or performance as once feared. Analysis of output metrics at dozens of large companies found productivity either held steady or increased during pandemic lockdowns, challenging long-held beliefs that in-person interactions were indispensable (Brynjolfsson et al., 2020). This suggests many knowledge workers can maintain and even enhance their impact while working remotely for part of each week.

Overall, the research foundation demonstrates return-to-office mandates are misguided as they run counter to changing employee expectations and preferences without clear evidence of a necessary productivity gain. Flexibility is key to engagement and retention in today's hybrid work era.


Communication Tech Enables Hybrid Collaboration


While face-to-face interactions remain important for bonding and Brainstorming, advances in communication technologies have enabled effective collaboration across distances. Videoconferencing platforms allow for virtual meetings, co-working sessions, and impromptu catch-ups as naturally as if colleagues were together in one room.


Chat apps serve as digital watercoolers where ideas and information flow freely. Document sharing services keep projects moving seamlessly between on-site and remote team members. Asynchronous options like discussion forums, comments, and editorial review allow contributions at any time without waiting on real-time availability.

Far from undermining connections, these tech tools have made distributed teams an everyday reality. At GitHub, for example, the entire 13,000-person workforce operates remotely yet maintains a lively, innovative company culture supported by digital collaboration (Doyle, 2022). Likewise, companies in professional services, consulting, and tech have long depended on remote work to serve global clients efficiently.


With the right communication strategies in place, hybrid and fully remote setups disrupt collaboration far less than once imagined. Leaders seeking to maximize engagement and adaptability for a post-pandemic future would do well embracing flexible arrangements enabled by today's collaboration technologies.


Case Study: Moving to a Flexibility-First Culture at Agilent Technologies


A leader giving flexibility priority over return-to-office mandates is life sciences company Agilent Technologies. In 2021, Agilent transitioned to an "Agility Without Boundaries" philosophy empowering employees and teams to make optimal arrangements for their situation. Remote work is common with only 40% of roles requiring limited on-site time, and remote work is now a permanent option for many customer-facing and support roles.


To foster cohesion and innovation in this setup, Agilent invests heavily in state-of-the-art digital tools like BlueJeans videoconferencing. Leadership also emphasizes synchronous touchpoints like virtual coffee hours and team lunches to supplement flexible schedules. Agilent reports productivity and employee well-being holding steady or improving as staff appreciate the self-determined flexible arrangements. Meanwhile, customers see little change in support quality thanks to remote technologies.


Overall, Agilent's case underscores flexibility is achievable at scale with strategic investments and cultural shifts. By centering employee voice and technology enablement over mandates, this life sciences leader is sustaining high performance through the disruption of long-term hybrid and remote work trends. The success of Agilent's transition suggests flexibility is the wiser path forward for leaders seeking to thrive amid workforce changes.


Mandating Trust, Autonomy and Growth Instead of Face Time


Rather than succumbing to short-sighted demands for fixed schedules and office returns, enlightened leaders acknowledge the tides of change and mandate flexibility as the organizing principle empowering high performance. This means focusing less on where and when work happens and more on cultivating an atmosphere of empowerment, continuous learning and mutual trust between organizations and their people.


Specifically, leaders would do well mandating:


  • Autonomy for individuals and teams to determine arrangements maximizing focus and impact based on role responsibilities rather than one-size-fits-all policies.

  • Opportunities for ongoing growth through flexible access to training, conferences, credentials and new challenges regardless of location. Innovation thrives when talent feels invested in.

  • Mutual trust that employees' primary priority remains exceptional work, not "face time," and that leaders responsibly support well-being through times of disruption or change.

  • Regular check-ins emphasizing outcomes and impact rather than process adherence to maintain accountability and connection in distributed setups.


Rather than imposing questionable conditions, such mandates center the human priorities driving engagement, retention and performance for all parties. They recognize flexibility as the means, not an end in itself, cultivating an adaptable culture empowering organizations and talent to thrive through ongoing change.


Conclusion


The shifts catalyzed by the pandemic profoundly altered expectations around work arrangements, yet many leaders responded with return-to-office mandates overlooking these new realities. Research makes clear such strict policies fail to recognize fundamental changes to what drives engagement and success in hybrid work environments.


Instead of returning to pre-pandemic norms, forward-thinking organizations acknowledge flexibility as the linchpin of high performance in today's climate. As this essay outlined, return-to-office mandates disengage remote-friendly talent without clear evidence of necessary productivity gains. Meanwhile, communication technologies enable seamless collaboration regardless of location.


The wise path is embracing flexibility as central to culture and policies. This means emphasizing autonomy, growth and trust over rigid schedules and locations through strategic investments and a focus on outcomes over face time. Agilent's experience underscores such mandates respect changing needs while sustaining innovation, cohesion and business results at enterprise scale. Overall, flexibility should be the new North Star guiding leadership adapted for post-pandemic workforce realities and opportunities. Organizations able to recognize this mandate flexibility over returns will emerge strongest in our Hybrid future of work.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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